My name is danah boyd and I'm a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research and the founder/president of Data & Society. Buzzwords in my world include: privacy, context, youth culture, social media, big data. I use this blog to express random thoughts about whatever I'm thinking.

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remix is active consumption not production (when media becomes culture, part 2)

After great comments and good conversations, i want to take a second stab at explaining the shift i was asking for wrt copyright and remix. My argument is that we stop thinking of remix as production, but as active consumption. Remix happens as a bi-product of consumption. What we’re remixing is culture and the active consumption of culture is part of identity development and living as a social creature in society.

Think about clothing consumption. Few people buy all of the items on the mannequin. You buy different pieces and mix and mash them. You might even decide to alter them by adding patches, by dying them, by cutting them up. You make the clothing yours. And then you share your consumption with the world by parading on the streets. In this way, you make the clothing tell your story. (tx Kevin Bjorke)

Think about IKEA consumption. Isn’t it great that they lay out entire rooms for you to look at? Do any of you have rooms that are exactly like the ones in IKEA? You take furniture, you mix and mash it up until it suits you. You may paint it, you may add a different bedspread, you’ll add your own books. You then invite your friends over to show them what you’ve done.

Are you expected to consume clothing or IKEA exactly as prescribed? No. These items are made to be personalized, made to be altered to meet your needs.

So what is fan fiction? I take a story and i alter it to tell my story. What is hip hop remix? I take a bunch of different sounds and put them together in a way not prescribed by the mannequin.

From clothing to songs, we consume and we connect it to our lives. We’ve always done this with media. We’ve made collages out of magazines, we’ve put together pieces of songs in a new sequence for our friends. Of course, now, the cultural bits that we consume are more accessible Lego blocks. It’s possible to play with them in new ways. And there are so many more choices that we can be really creative with that play. We can consume culture in new ways and what we shit out in that process actually gets to be digested and mixed together with other bits of culture that we consumed.

There’s a problem though and that has to do with distribution. When i parade around the public square in my remix of the Gap and Nike (well,…), i am sharing my remix with the world. Yet, there’s nothing persistent or searchable about it. What happens when my friends snap a photo of me? They are making the remix more permanent but, still, no one from those megacorps sees what i’ve done. What happens when my friends sell that picture to the tabloids for a bazillion dollars because Britney and her new baby are also in the photo? And they are also wearing a different remix of various megabrands? I wasn’t remixing clothing for distribution. Of course, even that does happen. Ever seen pictures of celebrities in magazines where it says the top was made by Ralph Lauren and the skirt was made by Versace or whatever?

When Jonah Peretti sent his conversation with Nike to a few friends, was he distributing it? What about when it got forwarded to millions of people and got him spots on TV? In digital world, our intentions and the potential results might not be the same. You might be speaking to six people in your blog. It might feel like the town square but what happens when millions of people apparate there like it’s a Quidditch match? Only witches know this instant appearance of beyond imaginable audiences with some of them under invisibility cloaks. Yet, online, we’re living like witches. Is it distribution when we’re performing to beyond imaginable publics and lots of people are taking pictures?

What about when we’re intending to share to our friends just like we’ve always done? Why do corporate interests get to tell us that our sharing with our friends is now bad even though we’ve ALWAYS done it? Is this only because they get to be the voyeur in the room? Who gave them that right? Sure, it’s a new public, but yuck. I can’t imagine growing up with a RIAA rep perched in my school bathroom.

A huge part of the identity process is to consume culture, mix it and personalize it, and share that with our friends because it has identity implications. We even share in public so that we can get parents to scrunch up their noses. Just because technology puts the elephant in every room imaginable, why do we have to accept their dictation of how we should consume their products? Why can’t we consume for identity, for culture, for life? Why can’t we recognize that remixes are active consumption where we’ve made culture personal and for our friends? We live in a world where accidental distribution is always possible, where everyone has the potential to be a celebrity in public – everyone wants to copy them. That’s weird. But that doesn’t mean that the acts we’re doing aren’t what we’ve always done. We just have different technologies now but the practice hasn’t changed.

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16 comments to remix is active consumption not production (when media becomes culture, part 2)

  • i’ve been thinking of this recently this way: there is some fundamental difference between buying a physical, material thing and buying the image or appearance imprinted on that physical, material thing.

    take a book for example, you buy both the paper and binding and the specific text printed on the book. you could make paper and binding and sell that, but you’re not allowed to print your own books with a copy of the *same* text or *same* cover, because that would be stealing in some sense; or undermining the book publisher’s business model at least.

    same thing with a cassette or CD of music. you buy the plastic/magnetic tape and also the song imprinted on it. No problem making your own magnetic tapes and selling those physical things, but a problem if you sell the same songs imprinted.

    so what then about your remixing clothes example? well, you’re not selling anything or giving anything away in that example for others to use. if you remixed clothes and then sold them to people, presumably you’re just reselling someone’s clothes. unless you made your own knockoff copies of the clothes with the same trademark logos and sold them, then you’re selling your fakes / knockoffs.

    i think the economics though of digital media creates a whole new animal in a way. it’s like if we all had Star Trek replicater and could copy each other’s clothes for free effectively. if a friend had a cool shirt we could borrow it, put it in the replicater, and have our own copy for free. that would radically change the clothing industry, because then they would only have to make one shirt and everyone who liked it could copy it for free. how would they afford to design and make shirts then? well, it would be a lot cheaper for them to make one shirt, and distribute it around to all the replicators. They’d still have to market the shirt though and somehow recoop the cost of design and marketing though it would be copied for free. And there’s the rub. How to make a product that costs nothing to copy but still research, design, market and distribute it? Some computer games for example take many years and millions of dollars to design and create, but are then effectively don’t cost anything to replicate.

  • It is folk art. We’re seeing a revival of folk art and folk culture after a brief interlude of mass media domination. Folk art is usually about remixing traditional materials: musical themes, stories, plays, etc.

    The attempt by powerful owners to suppress folk culture is our generation’s heresy. In premodern times, powerful churches held a monopoly on the kinds of stories that could be told about Jesus. Today we consider this totalitarian and absurd.

    These days, Disney has a monopoly on the stories that can be told about Mickey Mouse. It’s the same plot with different characters. At least Disney isn’t burning heretics at the stake.

    Future generations will see today’s conflicts with as much bemusement as we see the fight over Albigensians.

  • Roy Kosuge

    i feel like all this concern over remix consumption is a red herring.

    you CAN wear an ipod costume for halloween. you CAN make an autobiography with a digital song/photo collage. go on the internet today and you’ll find 50 examples of each.

    corporations don’t have enough lawyers on hand to be spying on every such instantiation.

    when you run up against the corporation is when you’re redistributing remixed elements for the sake of mass commerce, or for some sort of wide public/political statement (e.g., public slander).

    sure there’s the one off incidents that hit the business affairs desk and gets blown up in the press (e.g., dangermouse), but in the context of how much remixing is going on day in day out, i’d say it’s still just as prevalent if not more today than it has ever been. (as for dangermouse i’d say the extra PR helped his career)

  • Nice analogy. Insightful. There’s one place it breaks down. When your friend snaps a picture of you wearing that cool designer clothing, they can’t wear the picture. They can borrow the clothes from you (in which case you can’t wear it while they’ve borrowed it) or they can decide to go buy their own, in which case the designer and the clothing store get money and support for their business.

    Not so with digital media. Perfect copies. No need to go back and buy the original. No further direct support for the business from the culture.

    This doesn’t invalidate many other points you’re making, though.

  • “It is folk art. We’re seeing a revival of folk art and folk culture after a brief interlude of mass media domination. Folk art is usually about remixing traditional materials: musical themes, stories, plays, etc.”

    I find that an especially interesting comment. I would argue the very basis for identity is synthesis — so is remix culture anything but the adaptation of our identities to this new technology?

    I’d also add it might relevant to contrast the Japanese culture to the American culture, and then on top of both again perhaps the Scandinavian culture.

    The Japanese because for a long time they have been the example of your fashion analogy to a prodigious degree by what is called “fruits.” (See also EGL, Lolicon etc.) It can also be argued the Japanese have a more feminine cultural ego than America does. (Hayao Kawai, his nationalistic past not withstanding, has a lot to say about this through his Jungian analysis.)

    Then the Scandinavian because these issues are, as I’m sure you’re aware, very relevent to some countries like Finland. (Your head would be under a digital rock to not have heard of it.) But also it is interesting to examine how the shy demeanor of their cultural ego allowed for such an easy transition into virtuality.

    And then again on that head all the MMORPGing going on in the developing Asian islands…

    I am getting too scattered, let me be more concise:

    humans are at their core remixers, if you would put it that way. The mortal are always consumers, and as the mortal must understand themselves so too would they understand their consumption by participation. The arts vouch for that. As Warhol began to explore the diffusion of the arts into the public and industrial, he was merely a portention for our present experience. (Just as the remodernism movement is a reaction to this deconstruction.)

    What has caught my interest lately is how culture to culture the new ease of digital in creating virtual identities (and perhaps the transhumanistic threat of singularity) has been reacted to. Am I being more lucid? I feel I’m not. I mean that: as our identity is less centered on physical things, and as value itself takes on a less tangible means, how will our cultures react?

    My theory is the dividing line has a lot to do with the same dividing line of monotheism/paganism… but that’s blabbering for another time. (And blabbering that Ballard might have already made.)

  • Great analogies, Danah. The creep factor of the cultural censor in the school bathroom captures the socially disruptive, personally intrusive nature of copyright in a way I haven’t seen articulated this well before.

    Roy Kosuge wrote:

    when you run up against the corporation is when you’re redistributing remixed elements for the sake of mass commerce, or for some sort of wide public/political statement (e.g., public slander).

    sure there’s the one off incidents that hit the business affairs desk and gets blown up in the press (e.g., dangermouse), but in the context of how much remixing is going on day in day out, i’d say it’s still just as prevalent if not more today than it has ever been. (as for dangermouse i’d say the extra PR helped his career)

    Right… the overlords of culture don’t usually have you thrown to the lions for expressing yourself… just sometimes. So what’s the big deal?

    Roy, there are plenty of people on the receiving ends of very expensive, very serious RIAA lawsuits for activity that is clearly non-commercial. While it’s true that most non-commercial remixing doesn’t result in litigation, the ban on unauthorized derivative works and the incredibly vague standard for fair use have an unacceptable chilling effect on cultural expression.

    As for the “slander” example, Roy: you’re citing the suppression of “public/political” speech as a valid exercise of copyright? You might want to take a short course in the history and purpose of the First Amendment.

  • Very thought provoking.

    One angle I have taken on this topic is “constitutional”.

    When *everybody* stops following the constitution, there aren’t enough police to enforce the constitution anymore. You have to write a new constitution whether you like it or not.

    If you get caught stealing a pack of gum from Wal-Mart, you have a problem. If the whole town goes to Wal-Mart and burns it down, Wal-Mart has a problem. Wal-Mart has to figure out what went wrong and fix it even if the town had broken the law. Wal-Mart needs to write a new “constitution”.

    I wrote more about it here

    http://www.nivi.com/blog/article/time-to-hit-the-reset-button/

  • Roy Kosuge

    uh, manmachine – i didn’t say that it is a valid excuse for exercising “copyright”, but that you will run into corporations. they (or those it represents) will likely whine about it and send you a nasty letter.

    most such lawsuits end up being settled for little to no money, unless you’re talking about egregious infringement, btw.

    i guess maybe we just see our worlds v differently – i feel like the world today is RIFE with interesting and exciting forms of “remixed” self expression, all made possible by the changing landscape of media and technology.

    i don’t see “culture”, or really, the individuals in the little digital and analog nooks of the world being scared off and timidly oppressed by the though police –

    rather, i see people challenging and playing irreverantly, with a gusto of “f**k you, don’t care” attitude.

    the REAL “overlord of culture” is the masses.

    every little bit of media is more commoditized than it ever has been. there is more access to information and media than there ever has been, and every media industry is being turned on its head by the fickleness and power of choice by consumers.

    now, i’m not advocating corporations or stupid c&d letters or the milk doll response of ‘i’ll sue you’ tactics, but wouldn’t you expect there to be SOME friction in that process from the whiney corporations?

    you make it sound like we’re in cultural nuclear winter or something.

  • Kosuge–

    I think you are confusing whom posted what. I think you meant to respond to Norwood.

    And really, manmachine sounds as if you’re trying to be diminutive. At least give me the credit of my reference to La Mettrie, and keep it in the French. 😉

  • Roy

    oops

    i am le confused and need a nap

    sOrry

  • Brilliant. I spend so much time working in the operational/functional level this kind of thinking applied to distributed computing hadn’t clicked with me. Awesome, writing and thoughts-keep it up. And thank you!

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  • I agree with you to most points. However, I still think that remix is production, moreover, it’s usually not quality production. Most of my friends don’t like remixes. Neither do I. In my opinion, it’s a pale attempt to prolong the success of the original version.

  • Flora

    What you guys are talking about is Culture Jamming not Remix Culture.